Tunku Varadarajan (14 June 2017)
SIR HAROLD EVANS is pushing 88. He walks with a slight stutter of the feet—prudently slowly, I’d say—and doesn’t hear as well as he did when I first met him 20 years ago. In fact, conversation with him consists of a certain amount of shouting, but one is inclined, after a few minutes, to ascribe the din to his infectious enthusiasm. His blue eyes still sparkle as brightly as a boy’s, and his appetite for news and debate is really quite ravenous. He is editor at large at Reuters, which translates, in real life, to his being a sort of presiding deity at a news organisation that he strives very hard to make less staid. (Full disclosure: my stepdaughter works with him. She is part of a team that brings ‘newsmakers’ and other people of consequence to colloquiums at Reuters at which Sir Harry plays the role of sage and worldly host.)
Although Evans last edited a newspaper in 1982—the year in which he left The Times (of London) after differences with its owner, Rupert Murdoch—it is impossible to think of him as anything other than a newspaperman. He is widely regarded as having been the finest British newspaper editor of the 20th century. This sounds hyperbolical, but it really is true, and not merely because so much of the competition has consisted of liars and scoundrels. There hasn’t ever been a better paper in Britain than The Sunday Times from 1967 to 1981, when Evans was at the helm.
In the years since our first meeting in 1997, Evans and I have been friends. I have never had the chance to work for him, but his wife, Tina Brown—a giant of journalism in her own right—was my boss when I edited Newsweek International (in 2011 and 2012). So, I concede that when I went to visit him at his home in Manhattan earlier this month, it was in a spirit of fondness and admiration. We had ham sandwiches for lunch, and a pot of English tea so strong that it made me sit bolt upright; and we spent an hour and a half chatting about his life and the state of journalism, and also about his latest book, called Do I make Myself Clear?—subtitled Why Writing Well Matters.
This is a book that manages to be impish and instructive at the same time. Matthew Engel, reviewing it for the Financial Times, described it as ‘very American,’ by which he meant—I suspect—that it set out to improve its readers. There is certainly an edifying quality to the book, as Engel suggests, but it is prescriptive without being preachy. It is not a donnish book, but is, instead, an attempt to wrestle written English away from the clutches of pedants and language-maulers—especially those in the government, the law, the insurance business and the academy—who have fogged up the language and made it impenetrable. If I had to sum up the aim of this book in a sentence, I’d say that Evans goes to righteous war on behalf of linguistic clarity. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.